In the fight for planetary health, how do we preserve our mental health?

‘It’s not abnormal to be distressed when you’re watching a world around you evaporate’
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As more Canadians grapple with catastrophic impacts from climate-fuelled extreme weather, from wildfires to deadly heat waves, the question of how a person can keep up the fight for planetary health while tending to their mental health has extended beyond the environmental movement and become more urgent and widespread. A wildfire burns in northern Manitoba near Flin Flon, as seen from a helicopter surveying the situation, Tuesday, May 14, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/David Lipnowski

It was early May and wildfire season had already started to rage in Western Canada when seven people settled into a monthly support-group meeting over Zoom.

The facilitator, Toronto-based Kady Cowan, opened the conversation by prompting others to acknowledge any climate change-related concerns weighing on their minds. Worrying her, Cowan said in her soothing voice, were the unprecedented “zombie fires” burning in British Columbia that feed on peat and woody tree roots over the winter and re-emerge in the spring.

Discussion gradually ramped up as others on the call shared their own concerns during what Cowan calls the “climate sanctuary,” a peer-support group she founded more than four years ago for people in climate-linked roles, both professional and volunteer. The rest of the 90-minute meeting was punctuated by poetry readings, controlled breathing exercises and chances to explore a constellation of emotions.

“It’s not abnormal to be distressed when you’re watching a world around you evaporate – the types of things that we all relied on disappearing,” Cowan said in an interview. “You’re not sick to be worried about that.”

Climate peer-support groups, like Cowan’s, are increasingly recognized as one way to help build mental health resilience in a world that can sometimes appear indifferent to the effects of climate change.

At that session in early May, several people in the group expressed a sense of relief at being able to open up with like-minded peers. That’s important, said Cowan.

“A lot of people just need those feelings validated,” she said.

The impetus for the group came out of the “huge disconnect” Cowan said she felt between what scientists had to say about climate change and the inaction it was met with by decision makers.

Anger and resentment started to build, and it had no place to go, she said.

“People burn out of this work fast because of a lot of different reasons, not least of which is that the issues are so big that it becomes overwhelming,” said Cowan, who has spent much of her career on efforts to make the health-care sector more environmentally sustainable.

Yet, as more Canadians grapple with catastrophic impacts of climate-fuelled extreme weather, the question of how a person can keep up the fight for planetary health while tending to their mental health has extended beyond the environmental circles.

Mental health effects from climate change have been dubbed a pressing, but still largely understated, public health challenge in Canada.

A report prepared for the Public Health Agency of Canada last year, based on interviews with more than 20 key public health experts, said the impacts had been underestimated and Canada’s health-care system was “wholly unprepared and understaffed to address this growing issue.”

Climate anxiety is a piece of that larger public health challenge. It often refers to the heightened distress a person feels about the impending threat of climate change. Those fears may be rooted in a direct experience with extreme weather or exposure to climate change messages.

READ ALSO: Study finds B.C. heat dome caused an uptick in climate anxiety

“There is a looming mental health crisis coming with this anxiety about the climate crisis,” said Nate Charach, a Toronto psychiatrist who hosts climate-focused group psychotherapy sessions.

It’s not considered a mental illness – and, in fact, some researchers argue it’s an appropriate response to the scale of the crisis – but climate anxiety has been characterized by symptoms such as dread, trouble sleeping and obsessive thinking that can disrupt a person’s daily life.

“One of the major problems that I see is that people don’t feel permission to feel some of the things they’re feeling,” Charach said.

“That’s where the mental health crisis comes in, because I’m feeling this way and being told I can’t feel this way, but I can’t change that hopelessness either and then you get stuck.”

That feeling of powerlessness, or getting stuck, is one of the dangers of climate anxiety, said Alexis Palmer-Fluevog, a Vancouver-based public health researcher.

Support groups can help, experts say, as can engaging in activities that could be viewed as taking action against climate change.

Some of the most “successful interventions” for climate anxiety are to get people involved at a local level, whether taking part in a neighbourhood cleanup or an environmental rally, Palmer-Fluevog said.

“Something that makes them feel like they do have a sense of agency,” said Palmer-Fluevog, the executive director at the Mental Health and Climate Change Alliance.

But climate action does not always feel like an antidote to despair, especially when it’s already a feature of your life, said Cowan, the peer-support group facilitator. “Action-oriented” responses to climate anxiety can, at times, appear to skip over or diminish how we relate to our emotions in the first place, she said.

“We cannot face what we have at our doorstep until we’re better at doing this relational work,” she said.

While last year’s PHAC report noted there’s limited data about climate anxiety in Canada, there are some indications of just how widespread it’s become.

Researchers out of Lakehead University conducted a survey of people between ages of 16 and 25 across Canada and found four in 10 reported that their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily functioning.

It’s left some parents grappling with how to support their children through heightened climate emotions.

Severn Cullis-Suzuki, the daughter of environmentalist David Suzuki and now executive director at the Suzuki Foundation, said her preteen son experienced a “very dark” period of depression. Overcome by stories about humanity’s ecological destruction, he did not want to be human anymore, longing to be a different species, she said.

In his struggle, she also could see parts of her own childhood.

“When you teach your children to love the Earth and love nature, you’re also, you know, teaching them to experience pain. Because what we are doing to the Earth is very, very painful right now,” she said.

Along with counselling, Cullis-Suzuki said one of the things that proved helpful for her son were community cleanups, a way for him to see himself as part of the solution. When he was feeling upset, they would head to the beach or the roadside to collect garbage and his mood would often quickly change.

It also helped for her sons, who are both Haida through their father and grew up on reserve, to be exposed to a different narrative unfolding on the other side of their family.

“This story of resilience, the story of revitalization, the story of resurgence of the (Haida) Nation,” she said.

“What I want to tell youth is, especially with respect to Indigenous mindsets, you know, humanity is at a turning point with our relationship with the natural world. And amazingly, there still are human societies that still hold examples of other ways of being.”

Janna Wale, a climate policy researcher from Gitanmaax First Nation, said she’s routinely reminded of that climate resilience in her community. Its members have contended with declining salmon populations, scorched huckleberry harvests and more intense wildfire seasons, said Wale, who is also Cree-Métis on her mother’s side.

Loss, she said, has been something Indigenous communities have long endured.

“I think (communities) have, for the most part, been able to move through a lot of the climate anxiety and start to think about how to build resilience,” said Wale, who works with the Canadian Climate Institute. “We want to be involved in building resilience for the next generation.”

READ ALSO: Smoke, heat keeping Canadian kids indoors instead of exercising: report

Jordan Omstead, The Canadian Press